The Cleveland Cavaliers won three of four this week, but lost ground to the Philadelphia 76ers in the race for the third seed. Here’s what we learned.
The Cavs are trying new ways to use Isaac Okoro off-ball
Okoro’s best offensive ability is finishing at the rim, but a shaky handle prevents him from doing this in the halfcourt off-the-dribble. Cutting when defenders leave him or take their attention of him is the best way for him to still utilize this skill.
Defenses have become more aggressive with leaving Okoro in the half court to focus on Darius Garland and/or Donovan Mitchell. Okoro was able to make Jimmy Butler pay here by cutting as soon as Butler stepped up to cut of Mitchell’s driving lane.
J.B. Bickerstaff has increasingly used Okoro as a screener which has been an excuse to double team the ball handler. While this strategy may need some fine tuning, it did work late in Cleveland’s win against the Miami Heat Wednesday.
It’s difficult to survive offensively as a wing who can’t shoot or dribble. Finding other ways to impact the offense off-ball like he was able to do at times this week is what he needs to continue to improve at.
The Cavs keep winning without three pointers
Sunday’s win against the Charlotte Hornets marked the ninth time this season the Cavs knocked down seven or less threes in a game. Somehow, they are now 6-3 in such contests. For context, the average is 12.3 made threes per game. The other nine teams within the top ten of the overall NBA standings are a combined 12-24 in games they make seven or fewer threes.
Despite the lack of emphasis on three-point shooting from any rotation player outside of Garland and Mitchell, the Cavs are barely behind Boston for the best point differential in the league. This, combined with the success they’ve had when they aren’t hitting threes, shows there’s still room in the league for unconventional, defense first basketball.
Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland are keeping the offense afloat
The last point is only possible due to the play of Mitchell and Garand. That was on full display again this week as Cleveland got heroic performances from both in their three games against playoff teams this week. Mitchell put up 40 points in a win against the Boston Celtics and 42 in Friday’s loss against Miami while Garland had 25 and 7 assists in Wednesday’s win.
The Cavs are asking a lot of these two as they have all season. They’ve responded well recently to the increased minutes, but it’s fair to ask if this is sustainable for a team that hopes to play at least two playoff series.
The rotations are short
Lamar Stevens was a breath of fresh air in what felt like a must win game against Boston as he single handedly turned the momentum of that game.
However, the lesson to be learned from Stevens’ performance against Boston should’ve been there’s no reason to have this short of a rotation for a team with multiple, imperfect bench options. There’s little harm in cycling in fresh bodies in hopes of getting a spark like they were able to do against Boston.
Instead, Stevens has played over 25 minutes in the remaining games this week while the rotations have been further constricted. This included playing only seven in the second half on Friday and Sunday. Notably, there have been no Dean Wade minutes of late.
Jarrett Allen’s fit against the best teams is an open question
Boston made Allen uncomfortable in space for the second time in less than a week. He once again did a poor job staying with the stretch bigs on the perimeter while being close to a non-factor offensively prompting Bickerstaff to close with Stevens instead of Allen.
It’s unquestioned that the Cavs are a better team this season with Allen. The four-man unit of Garland, Mitchell, Mobley and Allen are the biggest reason why they have nearly the best net rating in the league. That grouping is outscoring opponents by 7.4 points per 100 possessions which is in the 90th percentile of four-man lineups.
However, whether or not that can translate in a playoff setting against teams that can effectively play five out, like Boston and the Milwaukee Bucks, is an open question. Allen has done well guarding in space this season when asked to do so for a possession after a switch. Asking him to do it for an entire game or series is a different story.
While his defensive fit is the question, the answer may depend on whether or not he’s able to provide enough offense to make any defensive issues palatable. Allen’s ability to finish at the rim while freeing up the backcourt with his screens and vertical spacing is the biggest impact he provides. This is why the offense has been 3.2 points better per 100 possessions with him on compared to with him off. That same drop off isn’t seen defensively.
Unlike last year, Mobley is much more capable of playing the five defensively. We’ve seen this throughout the season and was on display multiple times this week with Allen being benched and missing time with his eye injury. The individual and team offense is where Allen is missed most.
Allen wasn’t able to make up for it on the offensive end in both recent games against Boston where he combined for just 9 points in 55 minutes. That isn’t enough to justify a place on the floor when the defense is as poor as it was.
Allen’s fit and usefulness against high-quality teams is arguably the most consequential open question for this core heading into the playoffs.